Arguing over facts: House health care bill cuts deficit by $130 billion, maybe

A rare un-photoshopped image of Nancy Pelosi. Seriously, Google her and try to find a picture of her head not on a dog's body.

The Congressional Budget Office released its preliminary assessment (caution: boring) of the House health care reform bill this morning, and the news is good: if all goes as planned, the Reconciliation Act to HR 4872 and HR 3590 will reduce the deficit by $130 billion in its first ten years. Notice that I say, “the news is good,” and not “the news is good for Democrats.” Finding out that a plan to improve the general welfare might actually save us a bunch of money is nice; if you like the idea of poor kids having medicine but don’t like the idea of the United States becoming a wholly-owned subsidiary of China, the CBO report should be a load off your mind. Of course, if you’re some sort of professional demagogue whose opposition to health care reform has been based on the supposedly enormous tax burden it will place on your audience, it puts you in a tough position. Theoretically, you should change your mind—deficits bad: health care bad, so now deficit reduction good: health care good—but that would feel uncomfortably similar to being wrong. No, when your position suddenly stops lining up with the facts, your only option is to change the facts.

You can do it the way Michelle Malkin did this morning, implying that the CBO has since retracted its estimate by citing an article published before the CBO estimate was produced. Malkin describes the Democratic response to the $940 billion/$130 billion numbers released this morning, March 18th, and follows it up with the quote “The Washington Post reports today that CBO now says the latest version of the Democratic plan will no longer cut the deficit as the Democrats have claimed,” referring to a Post story that ran Wednesday, March 17th. “Today,” in this case, means “yesterday,” “latest version” means “previous version” and “now” means “before the events I claim this report addresses actually occurred.” That’s called lying, and it works great. Unfortunately, they put dates on newspaper articles, so if you’re someone besides Michelle Malkin this kind of thing might damage your reputation.

A better bet is to challenge the validity of the CBO report and, in some cases, knowledge itself. That’s what Ed Carson did in his column at Investor’s Business Daily. First of all, kudos to Carson for reading the CBO report, evaluating its methodology, performing an audit and writing his column all within four hours of the report’s release. To be fair, he makes some good points: two of the biggest cost savings in the bill come from cuts to Medicare and reductions in Medicare payment rates to doctors, both of which have proven politically unpopular in the past. Still, that doesn’t mean the CBO numbers are “phony,” as Carson puts it; it means that the bill, as written, might not be adhered to in the future. This reasoning—that “the CBO must assess legislation as written, rather than whether it will actually be carried out,”—is central to Carson’s argument that we should ignore the CBO numbers, and boils down to the assertion that we cannot know the real cost of anything. From a man who prides himself on being a fiscal conservative—not to mention a professional evaluator of investments—the nihilism implicit in that idea is terrifying.

Both Malkin and Carson—one actively deceiving her readers, the other arguing that we must not evaluate the impact of a law because we cannot know whether the law will be carried out—demonstrate what becomes of logical reasoning when it is treated as not a process but a game. Neither of them regards the CBO report as information. They regard it as evidence, and since it’s evidence for the opposing position, it must be attacked. In this sense, Malkin and Carson are acting like lawyers in a situation where they’re supposed to be judges.

Politicians advocate for positions; a writer advocates for the truth. Practically, the judgment of individual writers translates into the taking up of positions, and the positions of honest writers can become ossified and blind just like the positions of everyone else. To the extent that we think that way, though, we are bad thinkers. If we are going to reason successfully—if we want to be smart and not dumb, and run our democracy well and not poorly—we cannot forget that our positions are derived from the facts, and not the other way around. The CBO report is or is not factually accurate, based on quantitative measures like statistical methodology and written legislative documents. It’s information. The Democrats and Republicans in Congress are allowed to treat it as evidence, but it’s up to the American people and our representatives in the press to decide, ultimately, how it will be admitted to our judgment.

In the hands of people like Malkin and Carson, American political journalism is a courtroom with no judge. Lawyers will argue over the validity of their evidence incessantly; it’s what they do. If we want to ever reach a decision, though, instead of making an arbitrary choice, we need a press that is willing to honestly evaluate information. We need to try to learn something, as writers and as readers, rather than relentlessly seeking to prove what we already know.

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  1. Let’s just get this damned Health Care bill passed. Is it perfect? Hell, no. Is it even that good? Probably not. Does America need it? Absolutely.

    Once it’s passed, future sessions of Congress can tweak it and change it to improve it. Once it’s implemented, millions of Americans will suddenly have access to health care.

    Regardless of who takes over congress in the future, I predict that government-assisted health care will never go away. Too many people will depend on it, like other social programs like Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, and unemployment.

    This is the reason that the bill’s opponents are resorting to outright skullduggery to stop it. They know that this is the battle that will win the war. From this point on, they’ll just be arguing over the reparations.

  2. Well even if the bill as a whole could save $130 billion, that just means the money savings could be enormous if you cut out the spending aspects of the bill. I would prefer if they made two distinct bills; one that would focus on increasing efficiency in the health care system, and another that adjusts the amount of government involvement. I personally do not want to see another entity like social security which can never die and has completely uncontrollable costs. But I would be happy to see money spent on things like an improved health database which could end some of the redundant medical care.

  3. As an ossified and increasingly blind lawyer who pays almost $10,000 a year for my individual health insurance premiums, I’m looking for some change. To pretend that the grip of the insurance industry on the political process is any less permanent than Medicare and Social Security is ludicrous.

    The only difference is that these social programs may run out of money.

  4. To somewhat play the devil’s advocate, I think you’re unreasonably dismissive of Carson’s points here. The bill pays for itself largely through projected future Medicare cuts. That means, the law relies on future Congresses to do what Congresses have always lacked the political willpower to do in the past. The CBO’s job is not to forecast how a bill will be implemented, or to investigate the political reality of a bill. But those are important, perhaps vital considerations. It’s completely valid for a commentator to point them out. Someone has to. The CBO score is one data point. It is an accounting prediction. It must then be interpreted outside the world of numbers because laws exist outside the world of numbers.

    Now, Carson probably overstates his case by saying the CBO score is “phony,” but he’s absolutely right to question how realistic the bill is given political realities. That’s an important interpretive role.

  5. The insurance industry does have a grip on our government, but I haven’t seen anything to suggest the current bill does anything about that. Nothing about anti-trust regulation against private insurance companies. Nothing about ensuring an indiviual can purchase insurance across state lines. A public option would even serve that purpose, but it’s not in there. This bill bolsters the private industry more than putting it in line, while at the same time increasing fiscal pressure on individuals with the mandate and greater taxation than what is necessary.

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